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Panama Post-Mortems

October 16, 1989

Bush Administration officials seem to take criticism of their performance during the failed Panamanian coup as a challenge to prove that they are not wimps. But they must not lose sight of what is really at stake in Panama.

Last week, for example, The Times disclosed a Justice Department memo giving the FBI authority to "snatch" suspects wanted in the United States from foreign countries even without the permission of foreign governments, a policy that seems dubious on both legal and diplomatic grounds. Officials stressed that it could be used against Panama's Gen. Manuel Noriega, who is under indictment here for drug trafficking.

A senior official said that the White House will issue "specific guidelines" that can be followed in dealing with future Panamanian coup plotters to avoid the intelligence lapses and communications difficulties that made it hard to determine what was happening in Panama until too late. Not only does that assume foreign-policy crises are tidy enough to fit within "specific guidelines," but it also seems to invite more coup attempts.

Finally, President Bush repeated at a Friday press conference his desire to see Noriega ousted. Insisting that he did not mean to imply "carte blanche support" to a future coup attempt, the President added, "I wouldn't mind using force if it could be done in a prudent manner." Apart from being unclear, the statement was unwise.

Start with the lack of clarity. What is "prudent" force? Is it force that results in no casualties on either side, or force that results in some unidentified but small number? Some analysts warn that American use of force to topple Noriega would result in a long-term military commitment in a small, relatively unimportant country, so that could not be considered prudent. And force that alienated Washington's Latin American allies falls in the same imprudent category. Most Latin American countries have joined the United States in a campaign to isolate Noriega, but would face enormous domestic political pressure if they were linked in any way with American military intervention south of the border.

The statement was unnecessary because Washington's distaste for Noriega is on the record, and the United States has acted in accordance with that anger, isolating Panama diplomatically and putting the country under severe economic pressure, a strategy that is working. Noriega has scant civilian support in Panama, and even his fellow officers are turning against him. By stressing, yet again, his desire to see Noriega ousted, Bush raises the stakes higher than they need to be. Noriega is, after all, a minor-league dictator in a small country that is no longer of real strategic importance.

Because the United States helped create the monster Noriega has become, it must certainly do what it can to help the general's opponents bring about real democracy in Panama. But with the widespread opposition of his own people, Noriega will fall in time. Until then, the only way he can survive politically is to pose as a nationalist standing up to Yanqui intervention. Every time Bush or any other U.S. official speaks out against him so forcefully, it gives Noriega at least some of the credibility he wants.

The Panama crisis is a case where current U.S. leaders would be well-advised to follow the Teddy Roosevelt's old maxim about speaking softly while carrying a big stick. The stick, diplomatic and financial pressure, is taking its toll on Noriega.

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